I'm going to put back one of my planned posts for a day or two, because I want to address a particular quote that came up in a recent discussion over at Think Defence. This is a quote that comes up often, normally a few weeks after it has been soundly and comprehensively addressed, when the author of the quote suspects that everyone will have forgotten about the prior discussion.
It also appears occasionally in other places around the web on a semi-regular basis and I want to post a comprehensive response here that I and others can simply link back to in the future, to save time for myself and others in constantly having to type out the same responses over and over again.
If nothing else it allows me to have a bit of a rant, which is always good for the soul.The precise implication of the quote "we are an island you know" can depend on the context in which it is used, but the most common context encountered is that of someone trying to argue why the rest of the defence budget should be sucked dry in order to fund a massively enhanced Royal Navy, and as such that is the context in which this quote will be addressed.
Because being an Island simply isn't what it used to be.
There was a time when the short stretch of water between Dover and Calais might as well have been a thousand miles wide. Obviously there are certain differences between shifting an army by sea across a gap of a few tens of miles vs hundreds or thousands of miles, but fundamentally the problem was the same; assembling and then protecting a large fleet of transport ships from close attack by the Royal Navy.
Over time though the threat has evolved significantly, both to our island and to the enemy fleet. One evolution was the advent of the aircraft.
During World War One, German airships were able to attack British cities from above using small bombs, the first time an enemy had attacked the mainland United Kingdom while bypassing the seas that surrounded it. It was the prelude to an even more fierce assault during World War Two, when German aircraft pounded British cities night after night during 1940 and beyond.
It represented a massive shift in the way in which future wars could be conducted against the UK. The possession of a large navy was no longer sufficient to defend the UK from attack as now the enemy had found the means to be able to bypass the array of Destroyers, Cruisers, Battleships and Submarines below.
The aircraft also posed a new challenge for the Navy itself. It's docks and harbours, defended from surprise attack by enemy surface and sub-surface vessels, could now be raided from above with sometimes no more than a few minutes notice, by an attacker who could largely evade the defences below.
Even at sea the Navy was no longer as safe as it once had been. The evacuation of British forces from Crete by the Royal Navy saw the rescuers subjected to repeated, heavy air attacks from land based German aircraft. Over 1,800 Royal Navy personnel were killed and nearly another 200 seriously wounded, with the loss of three cruisers and six destroyers. In addition, the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, two battleships, four cruisers and two destroyers were so badly damaged that they were put out of action for several months to conduct repairs.
The ability of aircraft to reach out and strike at a variety of targets had changed the equation of UK defence somewhat. The ability to protect the UK from air attack, as well as the need to protect the home fleet from the same, was now a very real concern. The UK needed the ability to fight fire with fire, which meant fighter aircraft capable of intercepting and defeating hostile fighters and bombers, preventing them (or at least disrupting them) in their attacks.
Meanwhile, out in the midst of the wild and cold Atlantic Ocean, aircraft were also changing the nature of Britain's defence of its sea lines of communication.
Since the start of the second world war the German navy had adopted a similar approach to starving Britain into submission as it had in the first. Submarines - launched first from bases in Germany and then later from the French Atlantic Coast - were used to attack and sink merchant shipping heading to and from Britain. Ships carrying food, raw materials, finished products, ammunition, and later people, were sent to the bottom of the Atlantic as Germany once again attempted to slowly squeeze the life out of Britain.
It took time for Britain to respond, but eventually the hard won lessons during the first "Battle of the Atlantic" in 1914-18 were re-adopted for the second, and merchant vessels were now formed into organised convoys to make the journey across the Atlantic together, along with supporting vessels of the Royal Navy.
But in this war the Germans had a new weapon to help them. The Focke Wolfe 200 "Condor" was a large, four engined airliner converted to the Maritime Patrol task. Flying from bases in France, it allowed the German forces to sweep vast areas of the Atlantic in a matter of a few hours, hunting for convoys whose position and course could then be transmitted to waiting U-boats.
This new concept - referred to in modern parlance as a Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) - significantly enhanced the ability of nations to search the seas around them and either report the position of hostile naval forces, or indeed to engage them on site with weapons carried by the MPA.
The Germans were not the only belligerent interested in the idea of the MPA though. In Britain, RAF Coastal Command responded with aircraft such as the Short Sunderland, Consolidated PBY Catalina, and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. These aircraft had immense range and helped to close the "air gap" over the Atlantic, which meant that German submarines interdicting the UK-US supply lines were always within range of at least one countries aircraft.
And not only could Coastal Commands aircraft report on the location of submarines that they spotted, they too could also attack them. The significant casualties inflicted on the U-boats by Coastal Command aircraft contributed greatly to the protection of British shipping and the defeat of the U-Boat menace. It also paved the way for the development of today's MPA, which when equipped with surface search radar, air deployable sonar buoys, and a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), represents one of the most dangerous threats to enemy submarines and shipping in the modern world.
The use and development of aircraft then has fundamentally changed the nature of defending an Island. It has changed the nature of the threats that an Island nation like ours faces and it has changed how we can respond to those threats as part of a comprehensive defensive plan.
All this also ties in to another quote that often appears shortly after "We are an Island you know", that being "... and 90% of our trade travels by sea" or words to that effect. Again, the implication is that because so much trade travels by sea, then the natural answer to protecting it is a super sized Navy.
This quote does however miss a rather big point. That point being that a lot our trade travels to and from no further than the continent. In terms of food imports for example, the biggest suppliers to Britain include Ireland, Holland, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Belgium and Italy, who account for well over half our food imports.
At the same time a lot of our own food exports travel to these very same countries. Although Britain's trade, by both value and quantity, is expanding around the world, Europe still represents our biggest market for most goods. As such, the idea that we need a navy the size of that which held off Napoleon just doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
It also brings us to another point about the whole "We are an Island you know" argument, one that too often falls by the way side. And this one mainly concerns the army.
Simply put, events on mainland Europe (and elsewhere) can have a direct impact on the security of our own nation. Back in the Cold War, the British Army Of the Rhine (BAOR) represented one component of the force that was designed to hold back the oncoming Russian hordes long enough for (in theory) the US to shift forces to Europe. Before that, Britain had deployed armies onto the continent before both world wars, with the aim of strengthening French resistance to any hostile moves by Germany.
In the First World War this worked well, the Second... not so much.
As a direct result of this, Germany was able to exploit the use of France to attack both Britain and its supply lines. Airfields in Northern France became home to Luftwaffe fighters and bombers that otherwise would have struggled to reach the British mainland. As mentioned earlier, the Germans were also able to use airfields in France as bases for their Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
In the naval sphere, the fall of France opened up three big advantages for the Germans. Firstly it provided Germany with breathing room in the West by denying the allies access to French ports. If the allies were going to take the war to Germany on land then it would take a supreme amphibious effort to force a lodgement on French soil. It wasn't until June of 1944 that such an effort could be conducted.
Secondly, it opened up the French ports and harbours for use by small German torpedo boats. These very fast boats (45-55 mph) - actually carrying a combination of torpedoes and small cannon - proved a serious menace to Merchant shipping in the channel.
Thirdly, it permitted the Germans to build heavily fortified submarine pens along the west coast of France. Despite being within the range of allied bombers based in Britain, these bunkers were so well protected that allied bombs could pose no real risk to them and the submarines kept inside. Operating from these bases opened up a much quicker and much safer route for German submarines heading into the Atlantic to attack British shipping.
Thus, we can clearly see how events on the continent directly effect the safety and security of Britain itself. With the advances in both modern naval and air power, there is more to defending Britain than simply throwing up a ring of ships.
Of course this all assumes that the primary concern of British defence in the near future is solely defence of the home islands. While that's a factor, we also have to consider the wider implications of what that term "British Defence" means. Britain's interests are wide spread, including various friends and allies. And their interests.
Indeed Britain hasn't fought a ground battle on its own, mainland soil for a very, very long time (the Battle of Culloden, 1746). Yet the British army is replete with the history and honours of actions abroad, because the Empire drew Britain's army into many actions that were needed to protect the interests of Britain abroad.
So it remains today. Just because Britain itself is currently free from the threat of invasion, that does not mean that Britain no longer requires a strong army. While you can debate the need for getting involved in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was little doubt about the wider British of interest of joining the coalition that fought against Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf war. And while people may debate the details and execution of the war in Afghanistan, it is pretty much unequivocal that standing beside our American allies to hunt down members of Al Qaeda was in the British national interest.
What benefits Britain in the long run may not always be obvious to the general public, but there are plenty of areas in this world in which we retain a strong national interest. The ability to intervene on land to protect those interests, or to remove a threat hostile to us, is a critical component of a modern, broad spectrum armed forces such as those that we have today.
And that's really the note on which I want to end this. We in Britain currently retain a fairly broad number of military capabilities, on land, in the air, and on (and under) the waves.
In 2011 alone we found ourselves simultaneously fighting a Brigade sized enduring campaign in the difficult terrain of Afghanistan, some 3500 miles from home, while at the same time providing a significant Naval task force to support operations off the Libyan coast, while also providing close air support to the rebel forces on the ground and airborne ISTAR for the benefit of NATO commanders, while also maintaining a strong, high quality mine countermeasures task force in the Persian Gulf, while also running our nuclear Continuous At Sea Deterrent, along with a host of other smaller tasks and postings.
Quite simply, while UK forces may not be able to match the size and scope of US forces (for obvious reasons), it's very difficult to find someone who can in turn match ours. This diversity of equipment and skills is needed to face the variety of challenges that the modern world currently presents to us and is likely to present to us in the near future.
We need to keep hold of that diversity, not swing violently to the extreme of a "maritime strategy" just because some people like reading books about the old Royal Navy and dream of resurrecting it despite not knowing what they would do with it, or being able to explain how it would further Britain's defence.
We are an Island. I do know.
But this is the 21st Century, not the 19th.